After examining the evidence, it should be obvious that the Earl of Oxford was crucial to thecreation of the first successful yearround commercial public theaters in London. Was he also responsible for their design?
The Theatre built in 1576 in the London suburb of Norton Folgate by James Burbage and his head carpenter Peter Street (who later would also build theaters for Burbage’s rival, Philip Henslowe) had a unique shape as can clearly be seen on several birdseye maps of the period. These theaters are not only round, they are at least three or four stories tall, and topped as well by roofed additions of some sort that seem to add another story. On these maps they stick out like sore thumbs. Where did this unusual design originate?
In her book Theatre of the World (1969), Shakespeare scholar Frances Yates connects this unique shape with plans for theaters created in ancient Rome by the classical architect Vitruvius in the first century B.C. Yates, who writes about both Shakespeare and John Dee, and about the literature of the occult, noticed that the round shape of these theaters conformed to these designs by Vitruvius, available at the time only in his book, de Architectura, one of thousands of arcane titles in Dee’s library.
The shape of these theaters, six-sided on the outside and more or less round on the inside, suggest an attempt on Burbage’s part to approach the acoustical ideal as described by Vitruvius. In a theater like Burbage’s, every seat in the house was almost equidistant from the stage. Thus––as noted by Vitruvius, who was perfectly aware of the physics of sound––rising and expanding sound waves produced by musical instruments and the voices of actors and singers, contained and amplified by the particular shape of the surrounding structure, could be heard equally clearly and distinctly in all sections of the auditorium. In addition, Burbage’s Theatre was made of wood, which, as Vitruvius notes, vibrates with sound and resonates so that the resulting structure functions like a very large musical instrument.
Proof of the shape of the Globe Theatre comes from a comment made by Samuel Johnson’s friend, Mrs. Thrale––whose husband bought the land on which it had stood––in which she noted “the curious remains of the the old Globe Playhouse, which though hexagonal in form without was round within.” (Chambers 2.428)
Thus, in the middle of the afternoon, on a bare stage with only the most necessary props, Shakespeare’s theater was far more an aural than a visual experience. Unlike a pageant or a masque in which the impact came chiefly from the costumes, staging, music and props––it was supremely important for the early commercial London Stage that the words could be heard by everyone in the theater, and what words!
- Taking his leave of Marcellus and Bernardus at the end of the first scene in Hamlet, Horatio creates the atmosphere with a single line: “Look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”
- In Act I Scene 6 of Macbeth, Duncan creates the setting with a mere handful of words: “This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.”
- In Act V Scene 1 of Merchant, Lorenzo sets the scene in which he hopes to woo Jessica: “The moon shines bright: in such a night as this, when the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees, and they did make no noise, in such a night, Troilus methinks did mount the Trojan walls and sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents where Cressid lay that night.”
It’s highly unlikely that knowledge of the mechanics of sound waves and how to magnify and contain them was common knowledge among 16th-century English carpenters. Yet the design of Burbage’s stage conforms so closely to the first century BC plans of Vitruvius, that it’s simply not possible that Burbage was not somehow privy to his book or at least, to his designs. That John Dee was familiar with Vitruvius is clear from comments he made in his Preface to Henry Billingsly’s translation of Euclid’s Elements published in 1570, six years before Burbage built his Theatre. So Yates, aware of Dee and unaware of Oxford’s role in the creation of the London Stage, must needs do what she can to connect Burbage with Dee:
This theatre initiated the theater-building movement of the English Renaissance and was the direct ancestor of Shakespeare’s theater, the immortal Globe. I believe that out of Dee’s popular Vitruvianism there was evolved a popular adaptation of the ancient theater, as described by Vitruvius, Alberti, and Barbaro, resulting in a new type of building of immense signifcance for it was to house the Shakespearean drama.” (41).
Since it’s unlikely that Burbage could read Latin or French, and since there would be no English translation, none published anyway, until the late 18th century, for Burbage to have benefited by Dee’s knowledge of Vitruvius he would have to have known the great John Dee personally.
To connect the carpenter with the magician, Yates feels it necessary to attribute to Burbage scholarly traits that don’t match with what we actually know about the rough and ready actor/entrepreneur whose nature, based on his behavior, matches better with that of the American gangster Bugsy Seigal, whose place in history as the first man to build a gambling casino in the Nevada desert fits with Burbage’s story far better than it does Yates’s fantasy.
Knowing nothing of Oxford, his tutor’s library, or his interest in music and musical instruments, Yates was forced to turn to what she did know, namely John Dee and his library. She didn’t know that Burbage’s innovative new Theatre was begun within weeks of Oxford’s return from a year in Italy, that it was built on land recently controlled by his boyhood companion, the Earl of Rutland, that Oxford would soon be living in Shoreditch himself and would be holding the lease to the other new commercial stage built that same year, the children’s theater at Blackfriars.
Oxford had his year in Italy just when Italian interest in theater art was at fever pitch. Not only was the improvizational street theater, the Comedia dell’arte, sweeping the towns and cities of Northern Italy and France, but experiments continued, in particular in Florence with a coterie of humanists and artists known as theCamerata (f.1573-1582) that within a few years would result in the beginnings of Italian opera. Five years after Oxford’s visit, the great Italian architect of the period, Andrea Palladio, began building the Teatro Olimpico, a huge indoor theater made of stone and marble based on Vitruvian designs, still to be seen in the center of Vicenza, Palladio’s home town. Before beginning the Olimpico, Palladio had experimented with temporary outdoor wooden stages, no longer standing, but one or more may have been in operation when Oxford was travelling around through the towns of Northern Italy. In any case he would certainly have heard about them.
Thus the simplest and most direct line for the development of the Elizabethan public stage begins with Oxford’s year in Italy, where he could have observed or heard about the temporary open air wooden stages built by Palladio on the same Vitruvian principles he would follow in building the Olimpico, to whose book, in Latin, French, and Italian, Oxford had access by way of his tutor’s library. That he and his patrons and the carpenter-actor James Burbage planned to create such a theater as soon as Oxford returned from Italy is well within possibility. That he was privy to the efforts of Palladio to create the sort of theater that Burbage would in fact create in London, seems equally likely.